Inching toward reform

January 27, 2008

The trumpeted increase in the state budget for services to juvenile offenders is somewhat of a mirage. More than half of the $29.6 million increase to the Department of Juvenile Services is to cover a shortfall in the agency's costs to house juvenile offenders in private residential treatment facilities, and not to fund new programs. While Gov. Martin O'Malley continues to reform the beleaguered system, the primary focus is in providing safe, secure facilities to treat Maryland's most troubled juveniles. But more needs to be done to help keep juvenile offenders from recycling through the system.

The governor's proposed budget for DJS begins the overdue process of replacing old and notoriously unsafe detention centers in Baltimore and Prince George's counties and building two smaller residential treatment centers that would reduce the state's reliance on expensive, out-of-state programs.

These are obvious needs and the reason the agency remains under federal scrutiny. But juvenile advocates say correcting these problems comes at the expense of expanding proven therapy programs that treat kids at home with their families, and that have been shown to reduce recidivism. They have a point.

Of the $29.6 million increase in the DJS budget, about $750,000 has been set aside to increase these treatment options and serve 107 juvenile offenders, a mere fraction of the agency's clients.

Mr. O'Malley's commitment to reforming an agency that was neglected and underfunded by his predecessors is real, even if progress is slow. He has included money to demolish the Charles H. Hickey School, a facility in deplorable condition that was supposed to be closed by the Ehrlich administration. In its place will be a new 48-bed center; state officials should work closely with Baltimore County residents to find a site favorable to them within Hickey's vast acreage.

Under Mr. O'Malley, Maryland is following Missouri's lead in establishing smaller, secure regional centers where juveniles might have a fighting chance to start anew. But it also must invest more of its dollars in community-based, intensive treatment programs such as Multi-Systemic and Functional Family therapies. These therapies cost less than residential treatment and have been successful in reducing rearrests of juveniles.

Maryland may always need secure facilities for its most incorrigible juveniles, but offering specialized treatment to more kids on the front end could reduce the number of youths incarcerated in expensive juvenile prisons. That's a trade-off worth making.

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